The Race Riot of 1919

On Sunday, July 27, 1919, an unusually hot summer day, Eugene Williams and some friends unintentionally navigated a homemade wooden raft across an imaginary Lake Michigan boundary line, a few yards out from a “white” beach at 29th street. Beachgoers witnessed George Stauber, a twenty-four-year-old white man, hurl stones at the boys until Williams fell off the raft, plunged into the lake, and drowned. The first police officer at the scene, Daniel Callahan, refused to take Stauber into custody. Police reinforcements arrived to confront a crowd of despondent African Americans gathered near the beach that evening. A black man fired a gun at the officers. Police returned fire and killed the gunman.

A large crowd of people assembled at the 29th Street beach after Eugene Williams was stoned by a group of white men, Chicago, Illinois, July 27, 1919.

As word spread, the city erupted in racial violence. Whites loaded into automobiles and sped through black streets, firing indiscriminately at African Americans and their homes. As whites attacked, black people fought back in unprecedented numbers: a street-level expression of the growing race consciousness catching fire across the country during what writer James Weldon Johnson called the “Red Summer.” The National Guard arrived to quell violence, but eventually a steady rain proved most effective in restoring peace. In the end, thirty-eight people were killed—twenty-three black and fifteen white—and 520 Chicagoans were injured. Two-thirds of them were African American, as were two-thirds of the 138 persons indicted for riot-related crimes by the state’s attorney’s office. In other words, blacks had somehow made up most of the victims and most of the perpetrators during the race riots.

The Aftermath

The riots were terrible; so was their aftermath and expulsion from history. Civic leaders lacked the funds or the will to prosecute most rioters. Only a handful were tried or saw any prison time—most of them black. Many of the riot’s most vicious offenders were whites protected by law enforcement and local politicians. Chicago’s “respectable” white citizens dismissed the riots as the work of the city’s lower-class element, white and black, who lacked education and morality. It was in the best interests of decent people, they argued, to separate these whites and blacks to avoid future trouble.

The governor of Illinois called for an investigation of racial conditions in the city of Chicago. The resulting Chicago Commission on Race Relations was made up of prominent whites and blacks, an extraordinary effort at cross-racial collaboration, research, and resolution. African American sociologist Charles S. Johnson carried out most of the research. The six-hundred-plus-page report remains a landmark of sociology, and their findings of systemic racism were voluminous, but the Commission’s recommendations were weak.